Varanasi: It is the black hours before dawn

(Photo, Andrew Tonn)

It is the black hours before dawn. The boat pushes out into the slow current. The ghats and towers of the ancient city are outlined with dim electric bulbs and small fires. Their glow creates a half circle of light over the river that fades into the black of the sky and the uninhabited sand-dunes of the other bank. It is quiet and I whisper to myself, “You are floating down the Ganges by the banks of Varanasi. You are here.”

(Photo, Andrew Tonn)

I hear the voice of my father, the professor, telling me stories, teaching me. I hear my own voice echoing his now that I have sons of my own. I think about the chain of fathers that made us, stretching back over generations, over millennia, passing on knowledge and history, myth and dreams. I remember things that my father has forgotten telling me, tales of far off places that must have once fired his own imagination, places he will never go. Many of the ones I remember most strongly are stories of India, of Nepal, of the Ganges where the Hindus burn their dead, of Calcutta and the Sepoy rebellion, of Mallory and Irvine forever lost on Everest.

(Photo, Andrew Tonn)

There is the soft splash of the oars and I can hear the water drip from the wooden blades before they bite again into the current. From somewhere behind us chanted prayers carry over the dark water. I think about the steady flow of the great, holy river from the high Himalayas, the abode of the gods, across the burning plains, into the jungles of the Sunderbans, and finally the Bay of Bengal. I wonder how many souls and sins Ma Ganga has washed clean, how many of the dead she has taken into eternity.

(Photo, Andrew Tonn)

We glide by people bathing and praying on the darkened steps. The air is cold, cold enough that were I not consciously enjoying it after so long in steaming Bombay, that I would don a jacket. I shudder, imagining the icy waters carrying the Himalayan chill of their glacial beginning, but when I plunge my left fist into the Ganges I am shocked to find her very nearly hot.
The moment comes when the black of the madrugada shifts without warning to the first light of dawn, when you realize you can see beyond your cone of blackness. It is grey, then pink, then blue, then day.
I am floating down the Ganges by the banks of Varanasi. FP

(Photo, Andrew Tonn)
(Photo, Andrew Tonn)

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